Reasons, Journeys & Lessons

All week I’ve woken to firecrackers in the middle of the night.

Harsh and loud, bursting into a quick white flame outside of our bedroom window before diminishing into the night. They scare me every time, even though they go off daily. Last night we were both restless. The firecrackers, the heat, the constant noises from the street below, Ed got up to see an old couple stumbling past the gate, 3 am, drunk or high we don’t know what. Right now I’m sitting crossed legged on a mat, fan in my face because the humid heat is unstoppable. It gets worse when the smells from the dumpsite and sewers drift over.

I can hear a loud bass maybe a few streets away, blaring, heavy and monotonous. Kids run up and down the street, pointing their plastic guns at passers-by and laughing, asking for money and high fives and shouting Merry Christmas.

It’s December the 28th, in Tondo, Manila. It is anything but a peace-filled Christmas holiday on these streets.

My Christmas eve journal entry:

Doesn’t feel one bit like Christmas. It’s hot and we’re sweating. Fans blaring. Found some tinsel and gifts to give the kids. So pleased we bought M&S shortbread back in Singapore. We spent ages tonight in the supermarket, it was busy and we were the only white faces. We wrapped gifts and listened to carols. Tried not to think about my family too much today, and all the things I love about this time of year. So pleased we are spending it with a fellow Englishman.

We’ve been in Tondo one week now. It’s chaotic. That’s the only word I have for it. The smell of the rubbish and sewers waft in the house. Dirty kids, but happy faces. So many people without teeth!! We visit the hospital, we pray for 3 boys all of whom were stabbed. One of them accepts Jesus. They are all moved. We go to bible study and visit the house churches that rest upon the sewage. Ed shares a Christmas message. We shop at the market and queue at the atm getting a million stares. We have a Christmas party, we open the gates and feed the kids from the street juice and biscuits and we play. Saturday is spent moving around the district feeding and playing with more children. The first one got my heart. Little Marie Ella. The way she clung to me. Her sweet face and missing teeth. Dirty clothes. She spoke like Myla, repeating my words, it broke my heart. We sing for the family and send it on WhatsApp. She sings with us then waves goodbye and runs off down the dirt track. I cried last night, just want to love her. Love these kids. Saw people healed at church, they are all hungry for more. Tomorrow is Christmas.

What on earth are we here for?

Flashback nearly five months and we were waving goodbye to rainy England, our friends, family, home and cat, and setting off on a year-long adventure. Me, Ed, 2 rucksacks each and a lot of excitement. This has been in the pipeline for around 5 years since we got married, we itched for an adventure. We planned, and booked, got bags and equipment, had jabs and stocked up on medicines, packed and repacked, and finally, the day came.

To lots of people what we are doing is not the norm.

We quit our jobs, we left our house that we only bought 2 years before, and we got on one very long plane journey taking us far away. We know that this life is about so much more than bricks and mortar, mortgages and paychecks and living for the weekends. We wanted to see more of the world, to taste it, touch it, smell it. See how this mad world of ours actually works. What fuels the faith in tiny Indian villages? How do parents bring up their children in Africa? How does the Church practice hospitality in the Philippines? What can I learn to do without? How can I grow? What can I learn? What can I glean? What can I give? Where and what is next? We set off on a pilgrimage of sorts in search of some answers.

We are coming up to our halfway mark soon. I feel strangely emotional thinking about it. I am only just getting into my stride with this whole travel, live out of a bag, live with strangers, kind of thing. I am learning so much. We have tried to position ourselves in a place of learning, giving, growing wherever we go. That includes lying on the beaches of Thailand and working to build homes in South Africa. It doesn’t really matter what we are doing, we are doing it to set ourselves up for a life that we don’t see lived out that often in our culture.

So what am I learning? So much. Where do I start?

Be Brave

Bravery, a word I don’t often use for myself. Something I hope to be.

Something I tried to practice at home, be brave in my relationships, be vulnerable, speak out my needs, just have a go. These 5 months have taken bravery on a different journey for me. I’ve had to suck it up more than once (a lot more) and really just be brave. Right now, I’m being brave about going to the toilet, because I know there are spiders, cockroaches and rats out by the loo.

Bravery looked like falling asleep in a thin tent in the wild African Bush. It looked like preaching to 80 young men in India, being the only female in the room. It looks like this introvert spending hours and hours with people. All the time. It looks like holding it together on flights flying through storms, the turbulence making my heart pound. It’s sharing my story on the spot in a building on the brink of collapse in the Philippines. It’s playing with these kids, the ones with dirt on their faces and their hair matted, teeth rotting, smelling of urine, knowing I can’t do much to help them but for that short time I can let them feel loved. It’s being with Ed 24/7 365 days of the year and letting him see the full me, all the time.

Seeing my fear. That’s brave for me.

Live in Tension

This is a big one for me.

I love the world. I love hot weather and adventures. I love missional work and getting my hands dirty. I love trying new foods and seeing new sights and meeting new people. I love the excitement of travel. I also love home. I love books and a good, strong cup of tea. I love home cooked food, preferably made by Ed or my mum. I love my cat Scout, and blankets and my cosy sofa. I love open fires and winter walks in England and hot bubble baths. I love routine. Love the daily chores of laundry, cleaning, cooking, resting. I love my bed. I am a home girl at heart.

And yet this homegirl gets itchy feet.

A huge moment of impact for me right at the start of this trip was reading the book ‘At Home In The World’ by Tsh Oxenreider. It was like I was reading about myself. Tsh writes about her experience travelling the world with 3 kids, and all the while yearning for home and roots. How we can be two things at once. And that’s ok. There are so many tensions in life, and I’m learning, it’s ok. In South Africa right at the beginning, I was starting to think I didn’t have what it takes, maybe we should have stayed put. Then I read her words and felt a sense of relief. It doesn’t have to be one or the other. We can live in the tension of two truths and recognise the season.

I had so many expectations of this year, to read through my long list of books, to write, to listen to all the podcasts I never have time for, to plan for what’s next and start forming good habits, to exercise daily…you get it. About five weeks in I was feeling frustrated that I hadn’t got into the swing of things. I hadn’t exercised much and my list of books was the same. I felt that still small voice.

There is a season for everything. Even in one year, there is a season for everything: A season for games and fun with friends, a season for retreat and focus, a season of giving and serving and doing. And that’s ok. It doesn’t have to be all at once, and all together. I think there is a beauty in living in tension. I know that life is full of balance and seasons. It ebbs and flows and I’m learning to go with it and not resist it because it doesn't quite fit with the expectations I had of myself. It’s surprising and exciting and better than I could ever imagine.

Remaining Present

The word present is being thrown around a lot right now. I like it. It’s a word our generation needs to grasp hold of and actually practice. We are real forward thinkers. We enjoy strategising and planning and dreaming. As soon as we were on that flight out from Heathrow we were already talking about life back in the UK when we return. I mean seriously. We began listening to ‘Present over Perfect’ in October whilst both ill in India. I can’t recommend it enough. We had to actively choose to remain present in our season. To actually experience it and live it and let it change us. We stopped talking about ‘when we’re back’ and forced ourselves to reflect on now. I think it’s really helped me settle into this way of life. I am no longer pining for home as often as I was, and I’m not waiting to get back for the next thing. I’m living my life here and now and I wouldn’t have it any other way even though sometimes it’s hard and emotional and requires me to engage and give more than feels comfortable. I catch myself thinking ‘when’ so much and it’s deadly. It robs us of what we have right now.

People are people, everywhere

I wrote about this recently on our travel blog.

I’ve been struck by how similar people are across the world. Regardless of culture, religion, economics, it seems the heart of humanity is really quite similar. To provide, to love, to make things count in some way, to connect, to know and be known.

In Bangkok weeks ago, I noticed whilst sitting next to two ladies on the train, what they were up to on their phones. Yes, I know, super nosy of me but who doesn’t do that?! One of them was pinning bags and clothes on Pinterest. She was dressed in a smart black skirt and blouse, high heels, maybe she works in one of the many high rises of the city? The lady to my right was watching funny youtube videos and giggling to herself. The first thought I had was, this could be any train or bus or plane anywhere in the world and I bet the sights would be the same. It reminded me of the London tube. People reading, headphones in, phones out, nodding off to sleep, holding children, school kids with heavy bags. Isn’t this scene played out in every city across the world?

It made me think back to a similar thought I had when we were in India weeks before.

It was a Monday morning, picture a house set on a hill surrounded by coconut trees, hot and sticky with humidity. The house is in a small village, in the deep south of India’s southern-most state - Kerala. I observed the family we were staying with as we ate our fish curry and rice for breakfast!! 10-year-old Sonu, rushing around packing his school bag, breakfast being eaten quickly and absentmindedly by all family members, Auntie handing out the chai, Uncle ironing his shirt, clock ticking, school bus arriving, Sonia grabbing her work sari. Outside kids running for the bus, cars hooting, a hive of activity. I thought again, this feels like a pretty normal Monday morning. It reminds me exactly of my own Mondays, far away in England. Yet here I am, in quite literally the middle of nowhere, in an underdeveloped village in India and still, the Monday rush of activity looks just the same.

I’m starting to realise, people are people, everywhere.

From what I can gather, the same scenes play out day by day, country by country. It’s easy to feel so separated from people because of culture, race, religion and language. I’ve begun taking more notice of the similarities that people have rather than our differences: It has made the transition from country to country that little bit easier. I am moved by the way humanity is more the same than it is different.

Aren’t we all just humans at the end of the day? And don’t we connect in a million small ways all the time? We may not have much in common on the surface with the people we pass on the streets as we travel through these countries, but we do share our human natures.

There are another 6 months to go.

I’m going to continue this journey with an open heart and mind, eager to learn and grow and give. There’s still so much to see and experience. There will be ups and downs and seasons within.

I will live in the tensions and the present and I will be brave.

Author: Bethany Walker